Review by darkknight109
"Quite possibly the most grossly mishandled and generally unplayable MMO out there"
I'd actually like to qualify the title of this review before I begin. Star Wars Galaxies is titled as an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game for the uninitiated), but it actually holds that title in theory only. In practice, it is not massive, nor multiplayer and is more of a bastardized FPS-action game hybrid, than anything that would resemble an RPG. Thus, it would be more correct to label it an OG. This monosyllabic grunt is actually more reflective of the game's current state than its status as an acronym initially implies. Let me explain:
Before I begin, I should mention that an MMO is constantly changing and, thus, older reviews tend to be outdated and inaccurate (particularly in the case of this game). This review is up to date as of October, 2007 and, barring another major change in game mechanics, most of it should remain up to date for the remainder of the game's lifespan. I'll try to be as expansive as possible in this review, which will be somewhat difficult given the sheer scope of the game. So be prepared, this review is rather lengthy, but it covers pretty much every aspect of the game at one point or another.
To begin the review, let's open up with a little history of the game (this bit's a little long. If you're really not interested, skip down to the bolded title that says Graphics for the game's current state). The game was developed by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) who could be called the EA of the MMO industry; They release a lot of top-selling products, but are notorious for screwing up their own games (and screwing their customers in the process) in a truly spectacular fashion.
Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) launched in 2003 to overall poor reviews. Not to be put off by reviewers (which is really quite ironic, considering I am one), I was one of the people who signed up in the first month, eager to see how Star Wars had fared in the MMO realm. Admittedly, the game was quite a mess. It was filled with glitches and lacked any sort of meaningful content beyond levelling your character. A victim of LucasArts recent stance regarding deadlines (they should always be met, even if product quality suffers), SWG was pushed live far, far, far too early and arguably all the game's subsequent problems can be traced back to that poor decision. However, the game had a certain charm to it in the sheer scope of the game. It still holds onto that charm, albeit in a much smaller amount. You are literally living in the Star Wars universe and if there's one thing the game did right, it's the game world. The game consists of 10 regular planets, plus two more adventure planets available with the expansion packs and all of them are beautifully detailed. But I'll get into that a little later.
Anyways, back to history. The game cleaned itself up in the following months, but still suffered greatly for its early release. Glitches were fixed, content was added and the game started to right itself. People started learning how to unlock the game's secret alpha class (read: Super strong character) Jedi and it seemed everyone was trying to earn their own lightsaber. The game didn't have a huge population (roughly 300 000 subscribers at its peak) and was far from perfect, but it developed a small but loyal fanbase that yours truly was a member of. But then something happened. What happened to Galaxies?
WoW happened to Galaxies.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, I don't need to even tell you what that acronym stands for. World of Warcraft zoomed past SWG in subscriber numbers and surged well into the 7 digit realm. SWG's population took a hit from the game, as was expected. But unfortunately, big business being what it is, SOE wasn't too happy about getting trounced by Blizzard's mega-game. So what did they do? They tore apart the game with a pair of upgrades that sent the game into a tailspin: The Combat Upgrade (CU) and the New Game Enhancements (NGE).
It's really rather difficult to explain the scope and magnitude of this screw-up to someone not familiar with the game. Getting the privilege to develop an MMO with the Star Wars licence is something most developers would have sold their firstborns for. To almost anyone it's practically a licence to print money. But, in a spectacular display of poor planning, SOE courageously demonstrated why it is a bad idea to try and rebuild a plane in mid-flight. With both these upgrades (and I use that term VERY loosely), they basically disassembled the game and rebuilt it from the ground up. Characters were nerfed and millions of items were made useless overnight. With the NGE, SWG's touted skill system, a non-linear levelling up method that allowed you to mix-and-match skills from any of the game's 32 classes was replaced with a run of the mill numerical levelling system with 9 predetermined classes that resulted in entire playstyles being eliminated literally overnight. As can be expected, the playerbase was not pleased. How badly were the upgrades received?
There were threats of lawsuits, allegations of corporate dishonesty and complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau. EBgames and Amazon had to shut down customer reviews for the game due to a massive flood of negative reviews. It was so bad, it managed to make headlines in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC. When the dust settled, SOE had lost over 150 000 subscribers, literally reducing their playerbase to 1/6 of its former numbers in a number of months. It has been a blow from which the game has never fully recovered and it still remains in limbo today.
So now you know the game's troubled backstory and how it wound up in its current sorry state. This was a rather lengthy preamble, but if you're seriously considering buying this game, you should understand that you do so with the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. What you get today may not be there tomorrow. SOE has shown themselves more than willing to pull the rug out from under the subscribers' collective feet. They did so twice in a six month timeframe and I have no doubt they will do it again.
But enough with the history lesson. How about some actual statements on the game itself? I left the game when SOE succeeded in wearing my patience thin (and I'm a pretty patient guy) in November 2005, but I recently downloaded the free demo (goodness knows I would never actually pay for this garbage again) to take a look at the game and see if it has changed since my lengthy hiatus began. There's some new stuff, but ultimately no matter how much you polish a lump of crap, it'll still be a lump of crap at the end of the day.
After finishing the tutorial, which is probably the most polished part of the game, you're plunked down in Mos Eisley and set on your way. That is where the game truly begins and the flaws start to show.
One of Galaxies' stronger points. The graphics engine is now four years old, and is starting to show its age, but it still does the job. You will find yourself in awe of parts of the landscape and pieces of housing, even if the whole thing is starting to look rather dated. However, the game has its problems.
First off is the lag. It doesn't matter what sort of rig you're running, this game will lag like no other on your computer. Why it does so is beyond me, as it never used to be this bad. I have a computer that can run any game released in the past six months comfortably with no sign of slowdown at all. I have an internet connection that is literally one of the fastest in the country (let's hear it for university prototype connections). And yet I still get an unbearable amount of lag playing this game.
The second is the game's speed. Your character moves like something out of a Benny Hill Show episode. You'll swing a sword roughly three times a second or sprint fast enough to outrun a conventional motorcycle. This is, again, a result of the horrid upgrades that the developers released upon the game. Things used to look normal... really....
Finally, the game now has a disgustingly large proliferation of particle effects. Far from the Star Wars battles you see in the movies, fights in this game are a veritable fireworks show of exploding lava, strange Red Cross explosions, and enough lightsabers to make you think you're at a rave.
The game outside of combat is still quite pretty (probably because it remains largely unaltered since the game's launch) but other than that, the game is just plain ugly.
The sound is, by and large, good. Disappointingly, there is almost no music in the game. The music is played almost exclusively during loading screens, or upon a transition from day to night or back again. Beyond that, the game largely lacks music of any kind. What little music there is, however, is drawn straight from the Star Wars movies and still retains John Williams' musical genius.
The sound effects are where most of the problems in this department lie. Some sounds are taken directly from the movies, but many more have been seemingly made up by the development team, leading to an overall un-Star-Wars-like experience. I'd say the worst offender of this is the medic area heal, which sounds more like a thermal detonator exploding than anything that could be considered beneficial to your character.
I feel it is pertinent to include this in the review, given the nature of the game. Any MMO (or, in SWG's case, any game that claims to be an MMO) puts all the players together in one, big in-game world. Hence, you're supposed to see a lot of each other.
Problem being, in this game you DON'T see a lot of each other, partially because there's almost no one left to see. As I said, the game dropped from 300 000 subscribers to its current level of around 50 000 subscribers, which are spread very thinly over 26 servers. In any given play session, the only places I could really find people were Restuss (the game's dedicated Player vs Player (PVP) area) and the starting city, Mos Eisley (and even then, most of the players I ran into were credit farmers offering to sell me in-game credits).
The whole game now has an abandoned feeling to it, with all the NPC cities and most of the player cities devoid of any activity whatsoever. Buildings that used to have a purpose, like Medical Centres, Theatres and Garages now sit abandoned. It's both chilling and depressing to walk through the world of Galaxies, particularly knowing that it used to be full of people.
An interesting fact is that SWG has sold over a million copies to date. Though it sounds impressive, when you look at the current subscriber numbers, it's actually quite pathetic. Some quick math will tell you that over 95% of the people who picked up the game did not consider it to be worth the $15 a month subscription fee. The people who are left in the game are, by and large, the die-hards who will never leave the game until it is unplugged. Many of the players I talked to hate the game in its current state and wish for a return to the game's original state before all the upgrades took place, but feel they have invested too much time into the game to let their accounts die. Unfortunately, the developers have stated many times that the game will never be returned to its original system, which has left the playerbase more than a little bitter.
Ultimately, this game has been through a thresher twice and the playerbase shows it. Hostility is rampant on the game's official forums and the people who still play the game actually seem psychologically battered from what they have been put through by the game's developers. The people are largely unfriendly (though there are notable exceptions to this) and generally uninterested in helping new players (even ones like me, who knew perfectly well how to play the game and just wanted some help with quests or levelling up).
Story/In-game Atmosphere: 1/10
Simply put, there isn't one. The game has started roughly three different storylines and has yet to finish any of them. The in-game atmosphere is probably the farthest thing from Star Wars you can find in a game that still has the Star Wars name on it. Canon and storyline is blatantly ignored. Luke as the last Jedi? Hah! Jedi is a selectable class in the game and roughly every third player you see will be holding a lightsaber. The rebellion running and hiding from the Empire? Double hah! On most servers, rebel players outnumber imperial players and are busy holding cities and patrolling the stars.
Iconic things like AT-ATs, e-web blasters, combat vehicles of any type are all missing and this game is almost unrecognizable at points as Star Wars. If you're looking for a detailed Star Wars adventure, look elsewhere. This is not the game for you.
In-game Economy: 1/10
Another pertinent part of any game between people who share an in-game world is the economy of that game. From Diablo to WoW, each game has an in-game economy that should, ideally, be properly balanced. SWG's economy, however, is anything but.
When I first played SWG, I was actually quite impressed because it was one of the few online games I had played that did not have a barter-style economy like Diablo II's SoJ economy. In-game credits actually had a very real value and were carefully balanced by various credit sinks throughout the game (like decaying wargear, taxes on transactions, etc.,) where money was taken out of the game to balance the money brought into the game through missions and quests.
The economy back in the day, was admirably well balanced, particularly considering that it was entirely player run. Crafter players would create all the wargear used in the game; There was no NPC vendor to buy weapons from and looted equipment was of such low quality, it was simply incomparable to anything made by an actual player. In this way, the players created anything that was to be used by another player.
This whole vision has since been abandoned in favour of shafting the crafters hand over fist. Looted wargear is now much, much better than crafted gear, which sort of makes you wonder what purpose crafters serve nowadays. Well... none, to be perfectly honest. They simply cannot compete with looted or quest-reward equipment and, thanks to the new direction the game has taken, that's not likely to change any time soon.
Decay has also been completely abandoned; Once you buy an item, it's yours for life. Sounds good in theory, except this kills any chance for repeat business for crafters and means that you won't spend as much money as you should be. As any economist could have told you, when you have lots of money coming in, and none going out, inflation begins to rear its ugly head. And it did so and then some for Galaxies. After decay was removed, inflation spiralled hopelessly out of control. Mission payouts are in the 10 000 credit range, yet even simple gear often has 7 digit price tags thanks to the rampant inflation. For high level gear, expect to pay tens, or even hundreds of millions of in-game credits per item bought. New players, who have no means of legally obtaining this cash, usually turn to credit farmers, which ironically only makes the situation worse by bringing even more credits into the system.
The game's economy is in dire straits and it is on the verge of slipping into a barter system like so many games before it. Short of a massive credit rebalance (which would probably kill the game by driving away subscribers pissed at SOE for taking their in-game money), the economy is more or less unsalvageable at this point.
Gameplay: Ground 3/10
The game is divided into two segments: Ground and space. I'll cover ground in this part of the review.
It's difficult to even begin to describe the state of the ground game. I've already started in the graphics section by listing the horrendous lag and terrible particle effects that plague the game, so I guess I'll continue on from there. To start with, the User Interface (UI) is just plain ugly and generally unwieldy. Your toolbars will be covered in several bright, cartoony icons which will trigger a bright, cartoony particle effect, assuming the game doesn't misfire and trigger the cooldown timer for your special move without actually performing the move itself. It does so on a regular basis.
You attack not by pressing buttons, as is standard MMO fare, but by highlighting a target with your mouse and holding down the attack button, which is more akin to an FPS. Simultaneously, you must use the keyboard to fire off your specials, and the arrow keys to move. This horrible, bastardized mesh of an FPS keyboard layout with an RPG keyboard layout really requires three hands to work properly. You can turn on an auto-target lock feature, but your damage output is reduced if you do.
PvE combat (player vs. environment or player vs. CPU) has swayed between the two extremes of ridiculously easy (people were quite comfortably soloing the hardest missions in the game) and ridiculously hard (the current state, where people can get killed by an enemy ten levels below them). The game is trying to encourage people to group with other people as they did in times of old... the problem being, there are so few people left that it's rather difficult to find enough people to get a group together at all. All the top wargear now requires an experienced group to obtain, but said groups are nearly impossible to organize, so people settle on simply buying the items and giving up on the top-level quests.
The NPCs are somewhat frustrating to engage, as the ones that do not face you in close combat instead run in circles around you, forcing you to constantly rotate the camera to face them. They will sometimes start shooting you through walls, roofs or even floors and you will be unable to return fire due to a lack of line of sight (something NPCs are evidently not affected by). Levelling up is something of a chore, as it must be done solo. Grouping only reduces the amount of experience you get, making it actually penalizing to find someone else to whittle away the time with.
The game is still filled with glitches, some of which have been around since the game's launch, and it makes playing the game generally a headache. Crafters more or less sit around watching paint dry in the current game and entertainers, the game's coveted social class that originally healed player's metal fatigue while chatting with them, are mostly reduced to buff machines these days. The game has defined and redefined itself so many times now that the original vision is lost. Strange skill modifiers are still in that seem to have no effect whatsoever, and some modifiers that do have an effect are poorly understood at best. Most of the players haven't the slightest clue how strength or agility affects your stats. Do they increase damage output? Increase attack speed? Increase dodge chance? No one really knows... The fact that the game has three different layers of combat code sitting on top of one another (Pre-CU, CU and NGE) really messes the game up and probably makes the game a coder's worst nightmare.
PvP combat is only slightly better, mostly because everyone's in the same boat. The whole thing is still just a giant light show of particle effects and frantic keyboard mashing, and everyone's usually dead in under 30 seconds. People who are willing to grind their life away at the game's Galactic Civil War (GCW) system get a significant boost in the form of reward items that make them much more deadly than your standard rank-and-file.
The ground game is broken in almost every way conceivable and the only parts of the game that are still workable are parts that haven't been touched since launch, such as the player housing system. Sadly, these bits of the game are few and far between and the game is, by and large, unplayable.
Gameplay: Space 7/10
Space is actually quasi-enjoyable and it's another one of those gems that SOE has not yet gotten around to screwing up (although it's slated for updating next publish, so its breaking may be next on the list). Basically you build a ship out of a chassis (purchased from a shipwright player) and parts purchased from other players or looted from destroyed space vessels. The whole experience is quite rewarding, as you get to slowly build your own, personalized ship.
Whether you fly for the Empire, the Rebellion or a random pirate faction is almost totally meaningless, as most of the ships perform in a similar manner. It is one of the things thrown out the window for the sake of balance and, in this case, it actually works rather well. PvE is challenging, but not impossible. It can usually be accomplished alone, but occasionally requires the assistance of other pilots (who are usually more willing to join you for a flight, as it's more entertaining than flying alone and can actually be mutually beneficial, unlike the ground game). PvP is often over quickly, but is still lots of fun. The PC game TIE Fighter may still have the best space game around for fun value, but SWG's space is at least passable in a game where almost everything else isn't.
My only complaint would be the somewhat slow pace of combat (some enemy ships have ridiculous amounts of health, while your own ship's shielding is made out of tissue paper and wet cardboard) and the fact that all space combat is skirmish level. It consists of only a handful of starfighters fighting each other (usually three to five on one team, you on the other). The only large scale ship we see is a single Star Destroyer in the game's PvP area. That said, space still remains the game's greatest asset. We'll see if it stays that way through the next publish.
If you're still here after reading all this, I applaud you for your lengthy attention span. That said, if you HAVE stayed this long, then I hope you realise just what a mess this game is. It's a sorry state of affairs when even the pirates who are trying to emulate this game are emulating an older version of it, rather than using the current code. The game is dead and SOE knows it. The development support for this game has been sliced to ribbons and the last major update to the game was four months ago when, ideally, MMOs should be getting updated monthly, or close to it. SWG set something of a precedent by winning the un-coveted Coaster of the Year award not once, but twice in its lifetime, something no other game has managed to do. Having played it for some time, I can honestly say it deserves those awards and all the other accolades of shame the gaming community has heaped upon it. I would honestly be hard pressed to name a game that is more unplayable and broken than this one and it sits proud with E.T., Superman 64 and Shaq Fu as the latest entry in a legacy of downright terrible games.
The only thing that prevented me from giving this a 1/10 were the few parts of the game that are still somewhat playable, like space or player housing. Sadly, those parts are few and far between and Galaxies is not worth its subscription fee. Do yourself a favour and pick an MMO actually worth playing to pick up.
Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/07
Game Release: Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided (US, 07/09/03)
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